Stamp collecting may seem the least likely subject to be the stuff of great drama, but in Theresa Rebeck’s funny, sharp and beguiling play, receiving its world preem from Boston’s Huntington Theater Company, philately can be passionate, mysterious and even wildly funny. Helmed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman with exquisite detail and fully realized by a quintet of smashing performers, “Mauritius” seems destined for special delivery to Gotham, lickety-split.
The stakes are high between the play’s two estranged half-sisters. Upon the death of their mother, they battle for possession of a stamp collection, specifically for two rare pieces described as “the crown jewels,” potentially worth millions if authentic. Jackie (Marin Ireland), the younger sister on the edge of grunge, desperation and escape, wants to sell. Prim and proper Mary (Laura Latreille), who left Jackie and their mother at 16, feels the stamps are her rightful inheritance from her paternal grandfather.
But three shady stamp dealers have designs on ownership as well: Dennis (Michael Aronov), a young buck who feels his sexual charms can woo the glue off either sibling; Philip (Robert Dorfman), the fraud-detecting expert weary of his sadly stamped life; and Sterling (James Gale), the powerful and perhaps dangerous black-marketer who covets the stamps with a sensual obsession.
Though the storyline may at first suggest elements of “The Piano Lesson,” “American Buffalo” or “The Price,” Rebeck has other ideas and sensibilities. Like the rare stamps in question from the paradise isle of Mauritius, the fascination is in gazing into what at first may seem slight, obvious and functional. But as one spends time with these funny, determined and crafty characters, it becomes clear that they, too, are filled with meaning, mystery and a fascinating world known only unto themselves. As one sister says, in order to appreciate what these “thin slips of paper” represent, “You have to know about all of it.”
But cannily, Rebeck just hints at each character’s simmering backstory of family trauma, betrayal and lost chances. Details come to the surface only in bursts of anger (a riotous sisterly screaming match), violence or frantic overlaps or throwaways. These characters — and Rebeck’s focus — is on the here and now and on the sisters’ dogged pursuit of what promises and pleasures these stamps could allow.
The play is filled with stunning scenes of high humor and drama: a high-stakes negotiation between Jackie and Sterling that becomes “the most intimate of exchanges”; two daft exercises of playing it cool with Jackie and Dennis; Dennis’ romancing of a flushed Mary while an appalled Jackie looks on; some chilling exchanges of deep-seated sibling resentment; and dandy plot and character twists.
Cast is uniformly strong, with a breakout perf of irresistible charm, ego and nerve by Aronov. With his entire body hopped-up with the thrill of a major stamp score, the young thesp is a comic marvel.
As the sisters, Ireland and Latreille bring their opposite-seeming characters into high relief. Ireland is all nervous energy and dark humor with a survivalist’s hunger, resilience and strength. Latreille is a deliciously passive type — but one not to be challenged.
Dorfman is splendid as the rumpled expert “sick of looking” until circumstances give him a chance to see things anew, finding meaning and value beyond the marketplace. Playing the international dealer involved in some “murky stuff,” Gale brings menace and passion as a man who will do anything to get in touch with the real thing.
Taichman, who is set to helm Rebeck’s “The Scene” Off Broadway later this season, directs this new work with a subtle understanding of how — like the most prized stamps — value can sometimes be found in the flaws. Eugene Lee’s pull-out scenery has the time-worn look of neglect and defeat. Miranda Hoffman’s costumes also offer clues into the characters’ inner lives and the stamp of veracity.